Analysis

Netanyahu Ally's Term Presiding Over a Weak Knesset Ends on a Jarring Note

Although aware of the problems the legislature has, ex-Speaker Edelstein failed to improve the Israeli parliament's poor image and halt it surrender to government

Outgoing Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is seen behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an emergency Likud Faction meeting in Airport City, March 2020.
Moti Milrod

The decision by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to violate a High Court of Justice order and hold a vote on his replacement, which was summarily held on Thursday and put Benny Gantz in his vacant seat, serves an awkward end to his faltering tenure.

During the seven years Edelstein served as speaker, the Knesset became the weakest of the three branches of government: Decisions about legislation migrated from the plenum to the table of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation; ministers and civil servants brushed off summonses to appear before Knesset committees, and the Knesset debates, particularly on Tuesdays when the ministers are absent, became superficial.

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Lacking the ability to properly oversee the executive branch, lawmakers focused on submitting thousands of bills, most of which never went anywhere. Edelstein, who on Tuesday protested the judicial branch’s intervention in Knesset affairs, had a hard time blocking the blatant intervention of the executive branch in what went on in the Knesset. It seemed as if the greatest failure of his term was the trampling on the right of Knesset members to vote their conscience in the plenum on almost any law tabled because of the coalition discipline imposed by the cabinet on the Knesset.

“The Knesset has been intolerably weakened by the executive branch,” Labor lawmaker Merav Michaeli said Wednesday during a hearing by the Knesset Arrangements Committee. “Now its status has been weakened even further, when we were forced to go to the Supreme Court to realize the right of the majority to appoint a new Knesset speaker.”

Edelstein is well aware of the various problems this caused. He often raised them in his speeches, and even initiated measures aimed at improving the situation that were only partially successful. Thus, three years ago Edelstein set up a special unit in the Knesset aimed at improving its ability to oversee the cabinet. He also invested large sums of money to boost the legislature’s image. Internal surveys revealed that the promotional adverts didn’t do much to change the opinion of the public, which got its information primarily from the many reports of the unruly behavior of Knesset members and the yelling which ensued during discussions.

In his swearing in speech of the 21st Knesset, just one year ago, Edelstein called to fight the various diseases that had infected the Knesset during his time as speaker. “We are obligated to strengthen the power of the Knesset as the oversight branch. We are obligated to make the legislative work more efficient and of higher quality. We are obligated to immunize this podium from degrading and violent discourse, while strengthening the ethics committee and defending the Knesset’s honor,” he told lawmkakers at the time – who then rushed to dissolve the Knesset within just a few weeks

But it seems the event that stands out the most in his tenure was the battle haunted by honor and ego between Edelstein and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after the latter requested to speak at the torch-lighting ceremony on Israel's 70th Independence Day. In spite of Edelstein’s protests, in the end Netanyahu’s speech took place at the event, and in violation of his promises he spoke for an extended period of time: His speech lasted six minutes more than Edelstein’s. The incident caused a serious rift between the two.

Last summer Edelstein came out to help Netanyahu when he initiated an attempt – which failed – to cancel the second round of elections. The motives for his actions were unclear: It is possible that behind his position was an objection to the enormous waste of money this would be, it is also possible that this was Edelstein’s way to help out the chairman of his own Likud party, Netanyahu, who was fed up with criminal investigations – to continue and hang on to power.